random bits from our last days in india
Our hotel in Jaipur is grand. Perhaps too grand and westernized for our taste. We’ve come to love the quaintness of Rajasthan havelis and it feels awkward sitting in a massive dining room, all alone, with a full buffet before us. The man with the sitar sits outside on a cushion and plays Frère Jacques on repeat whilst a 10-year-old boy in full costume dances for the few people walking across the courtyard. It makes me sad, for some reason. As if they are trying to sell us the ultimate Indian experience in a Best Western. It’s like eating a Vindaloo at McDonald’s and saying that you experienced authentic Indian food. It feels like we’ve left India and entered a caricature of India.
And outside, the kids keep flying their kites from the rooftops. Hundreds of them. Until the sun burns to the ground.
There’s a women stacking dry dung patties outside her house, presumably to burn later, and young children bathe at the faucet in the center of town, and a sweet old couple reads the newspaper on the sun spot that rests on their front step. And the carver at the block printing museum sits on his haunches, barefoot, and chisels small flowers and elephants and paisley motifs out of wood. He gives me one of his creations and says “Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.”
A quick visit to the amber fort confirms what I thought all along: a fort is a fort is a fort. This one, however, stands out because of the long line of enormous elephants with flowers painted on their beautiful grey faces carrying tourists to the top of the fort. I’ve never been a fan of using animals for entertainment. I look into their small eyes with long lashes and I want to cry. I want to say “I’m sorry on behalf of the human race for using you in this way. You must miss your family. You must miss your home. You must hate having a stick poking you behind the ear all day and this heavy cargo on your back. You must be angry. You must feel helpless.” I can’t help but touch one. I want her to know that she is loved in some small way. I know I’ll get reprimanded for it but I can’t help it. I’m sentimental that way.
“I swear I just saw a guy wearing a vest made of Astroturf.”
We duck into a print shop in Jaipur to inquire about the cost of developing film. It is here that we discover the hilarity of “wedding charisma albums”. Bollywood-like wedding albums with bride and groom standing on a Photoshopped lotus flower or, better yet, crouched beside a tiger. The print wala is so proud of his Photoshop skills, which primarily involves saturating the happy couple on a black and white background. “This is my own personal effect”, he is proud to say. My head says “This wasn’t even cool in the 90’s”. My face says “Oh! Isn’t that lovely?”
“There are mothballs in the sink. I feel like I just washed my hands in a urinal.”
We take our bargaining skills to the streets of Jaipur where we haggle for shawls and bedspreads and scarves and things we don’t even need. This shopping business is exhausting – no wonder I don’t do it at home. I’m not cut out for it. We break for coffee at the Indian Coffee House, which is very Buena Vista Social Club and reminiscent of my favourite café in Montreal where all that matters is the coffee. We chat with a stamp collector for a while and it’s not long before he asks us to send him some Olympic coins from London. This is the one thing I find challenging about our time in India – it’s never just a friendly chat and you get the feeling that everyone wants something from you. It makes it difficult to let your guard down.
I ask him why so many people dye their hair bright orange. “Orange hair to mimic Mohammed the prophet. Others do it because they think it makes them look younger but I think it makes them look joker.” And then he said “Watch out, don’t step on evil eye or evil gets all over you.” True story.
We go to the carpet and textile centre, where we spend the better part of 2 hours looking at carpets and textiles with a salesman who keeps calling my husband boss. He sends his helper out to buy us samosas (the best samosas in Jaipur, he promises) and serves us 4 cups of tea and shows us 25,000 scarves and plays a really hard bargain and preys on our shopping fatigue. Joe and I end up getting into a silly fight over who had more samosa sauce and that’s when we know it’s time to walk away from the scarves. Samosa sauce? Really? We’re arguing about samosa sauce? No more shopping for us. We leave the store with heavier bags and lighter money belts than when we walked in. And though our trusty salesman assured us “This is the best quality, boss”, we are probably heading back home with a bag full of viscose.
And then there are moments when your husband is swimming his little heart out like a polar bear with a grin on his face and you take a moment to realize where you are and you smile and jump in the pool with him and forget all about silly things like samosa sauce.
We leave the “perfect” hotel in search of something that is a little more us – the Pearl Palace hotel. Properly cheesy with peacock patterned wall paper and a shower that takes approximately 5 minutes to deliver hot water. But it feels better – like our environment properly reflects the city we are in. On the roof terrace, we bump into a Canadian woman we met in Pushkar several days ago. The coincidence is such that we simply must share a meal together. And stories of India. Such as the way they present a bottle of Kingfisher like it’s a fine Merlot. Or how it’s not unusual to see two guys on a moped: the passenger talking on his phone while holding another mobile to the driver’s ear. Or how they serve cereal with hot milk. And we’re not talking porridge here. We’re talking about corn flakes. Corn. Flakes.
On an early morning train to Agra. I try to sleep but the ticket wala wakes me just as I am drifting off and there is now little hope for slumber. I am in that drunken hazy state of someone who has only slept a few hours. How can eyelids be so heavy and yet so intent on staying open? I jump down from the top bunk and cozy up to Joe on the bottom bunk. Public displays of affection are frowned upon in India so we hide behind the red shabby curtains. Outside, yellow fields go by.
This is our last day in India. I’ve never been so phlegmy in my life. I think it’s the combination of milk and pollution and dust. I swear I’m staring to sound like an old Indian dude and I now understand why they have “No Spitting” signs all over the city.
Haggle, haggle, haggle, we get a taxi to Café Coffee Day, which I thought might be Ganesha’s gift to India but it turns out to be pretty mediocre, with only a few cookies left on the shelf and the scent of disinfectant hardly covering the foul smell lingering beneath it and dance music blasting from the speakers. We write 40 something postcards on the porch and eat Indian take-out then make our way to the Taj Mahal. We are on a rigorous schedule, which, of course, is nearly impossible to keep (especially in India, the country of bureaucratic chaos). One must always remember to set their clocks to Indian time – meaning that everything takes twice, if not 3 times as long in India. Case in point:
- Walk 1 km to Taj Mahal west entrance.
- Wait in long queue.
- Discover they don’t accept credit cards.
- Walk 1 km to nearest ATM.
- Discover ATM is not functioning.
- Take bike rickshaw to next ATM.
- Walk to east entrance.
- Discover than tickets are only sold at ticket booth 1.5 km away.
- Walk 1.5 km to ticket booth.
- Note that we are carrying heavy ass back packs.
- Purchase tickets, drop off bags in lockers.
- Take bike rickshaw back to entrance. Time is ticking. It is 3:30 and Taj closes at 5:00.
- Wait in long ass security queue, women on one side, men on the other.
- See Taj Mahal. Oooh! Aaah! Wow! Cool. Rush around for an hour in tourist traffic.
- Rush out. Walk 1.5 km to cloak room.
- Get bags. Hop in tuk tuk. Tuk tuk driver very chatty. Joe and Jeanine very exhausted.
- Dodge traffic on way to Agra Cant station in a very Darjeeling Limited kind of way.
- Fear for life.
- Arrive at train station with 20 minutes to spare.
- Discover train is delayed 4 hours.
- Give drink and biscuits to poor kids with missing limbs.
- Feel sad for poor kids with missing limbs.
- Watch hundreds of rats running up and down tracks.
- Talk to American tourist and decide to hop on next train to Delhi in 1 hour.
- Train arrives. Jump in a carriage FULL of people and squeeze into that area just between the carriage and toilet. Smells like ammonia and shit. For the next 5 hours.
- Hang out with 2 sweet boys from Assam and a bunch of Kashmiri soldiers and a girl from Korea traveling solo.
- Assam boys get fined for not having proper ticket. Big discussion ensues and train ticket wala threatens to send them to jail. We wait for our own reprimand. The ticket man ignores us. Assam boys simply say: “This is the way things work in India”.
- Learn the Korean alphabet and the meaning of the head waggle and share photos and food with everyone.
- Arrive in Delhi. It is madness.
- Haggle, haggle, haggle.
- Take bike rickshaw to hotel.
- Arrive at Cottage Yes Please at 11pm, where our adventures began 3 weeks earlier.
- Order biryani, have shower, pass out.
- Wake at 3:30am. Leave at 4:00am. See elephant walking by the side of the road. Wonder if I am hallucinating.
- Arrive at airport. Have coffee. Suddenly Costa tastes like heaven with gold sprinkles on top.
- Go through security – men on one side, women on the other (in small curtained off area).
- Flight leaves Delhi on time. Woo hoo!
- Flight can’t land in Kolkata due to visibility issues. Boo!
- Flight rerouted to tiny airport in middle of nowhere to refuel. Double Boo!
- Flight departs again. Woo hoo!
- Arrive in Kolkata. Run to domestic terminal. Ignore all shops and restaurants on way for fear of missing plane.
- On other side of security, there is no shop, no food.
- Das is not good!
- Flight leaves Kolkata. Yay!
- Magically find 500 rupees in Joe’s wallet and order a bit of food on plane.
- Good bye India, hello Bangkok.
- Good bye Bangkok, hello Phuket.
- Arrive in Phuket at 9pm after 15 hours of traveling.
- And the rest is absolute paradise.
- To be continued.
As you can tell by this post, India was starting to challenge me by the end of the 3rd week. And now that I am back home, I find that the things I miss most about India are the very things that drove me crazy about the place. That’s the thing about India – it’s its very chaos that gives you stories you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the world. But maybe it’s like chocolate cake – it’s so rich, you can only take it in small doses. And once you’ve digested it all, you pine for more.